MEXICO CITY – Authorities across Mexico published warnings not to believe fake social media reports about child abductions on Friday after rumors led to a series of brutal mob killings.
At least four people have been beaten and burned to death this week after false reports circulated saying that children had been kidnapped.
Two men were torched by an angry mob in the state of Puebla on Wednesday. A day later, a man and woman were dragged from their vehicle, beaten and set afire in the neighboring state of Hidalgo, according to state prosecutor Raul Arroyo.
Hours before the latter incident, the Hidalgo prosecutors' office published a replica of a WhatsApp message rife with misspellings, labeling it "False."
The message read: "Please everyone be alert because a plague of child kidnappers has entered the country, it appears that these criminals are involved in organ trafficking, given that in the last few days children aged 4, 8 and 14 have disappeared and some of these kids have been found dead with signs that their organs were removed, their abdomens were opened and they were empty."
Medical experts have long said that organs that are not harvested in a medical setting are unlikely to be usable for sale.
But the rumor has made its way across Mexico over the years, spurring violence each time it springs up afresh.
"These rumors are totally false," said Hidalgo public safety chief Mauricio Delmar in a news conference Thursday night. "They have already cost lives."
He said there were no reports of abducted children in the state, and a cybercrimes team determined that photos circulating online came from another country and had nothing to do with the harvesting of organs.
He warned that a "collective psychosis" had taken hold of people.
Hidalgo state interior secretary Simon Vargas pleaded that "no one must take justice into their own hands."
"This is a phenomenon that is occurring nationwide," added Jose Arturo Delgado, who coordinates the missing-persons alert system for the Puebla prosecutors' office. He also said there have been no confirmed cases of child-snatching in the state.
The state of Jalisco issued a similar warning about rumors earlier this week.
But such false reports are not new.
In 1998, two men were bound, beaten and hanged in the town square of Huejutla in Puebla. The men were suspected of trying to kidnap four local girls to sell their organs, although prosecutors said there was no evidence that was true.
In 2015, residents of Ajalpan, Puebla beat to death two young men who were asking questions in the town.
Rumors spread that children were being kidnapped, but it turned out that the men were conducting a commercial survey about tortilla consumption.
According to a study published in 2015 by researcher Leandro Anibal Gamallo, lynchings in Mexico appear to have spiked randomly. There were 23 such cases in 2001. That number rose to 49 in 2005 and fell again to 21 in 2006. There were 64 lynchings in 2011, the latest year included in the study.
Arroyo said the preliminary investigation of the incident in Hidalgo showed that a mob in the city of Santa Ana Ahuehuepan doused a man and woman with gasoline and set them aflame. The man died at the scene and the woman died at a hospital.
In the case of the two men burned to death by an angry, cheering mob in the town of Acatlan in Puebla on Wednesday, prosecutors said the victims were farmers and there was no evidence they were involved in any crime.
On cell phone videos of the killings, townspeople cheered, applauded and shouted "Long live the people!" as the bodies of the men were smoked.